Speaking as a Protestant reflecting on Roman Catholicism, there are obvious theological differences rooted ultimately in different views of authority.  Yet as a Protestant, the first thing I want from Rome is not that it become Protestant (though I do desire that). It is first of all that she would become truly Roman Catholic. Only then can principled discussion start to take place. More importantly, only then can she engage the pressing issues of the day.

Today the public square is contested on issues on which there is considerable overlap between confessional Protestantism and official Roman Catholic teaching. Abortion and the politics of sexual identity are both matters on which we agree, even if our ethical foundations and arguments may differ at points.  Both of these, of course, connect to the even bigger issue of religious freedom, a matter of urgent concern to all religious people.

This is where I would press Roman Catholic friends: What I want from you and your church is a robust catechetical Catholicism demonstrated in practice. That is the kind of Roman Catholicism with which I doctrinally disagree but can at least recognize as an opponent possessing integrity and conviction. What I mean by that is not simply the paper orthodoxy of The Catechism of the Church. I mean the practical orthodoxy of acting on that teaching relative to members and especially office-bearers in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

The RCC has a unique profile and power among religious bodies in American society. The recent visit of the pope indicates that her hierarchy has access to the very top of America’s power elites and an audience that will listen. No Protestant or Orthodox church enjoys such secular privilege. Yet how did the pope use his time? He lectured congress on global warming.  He met with Kim Davis and with a gay couple. He projected the image of the universal nice guy, a canvas onto which any and all could project their own beliefs and aspirations.

To a Protestant such as myself he did what we have sadly come to expect the Roman Catholic Church to do over the years: He played both sides of the controversial issue of the last few years, he played to the gallery in Washington, and he did not use his public pulpit to preach the Gospel as the RCC Catechism would express it. Instead, he gave an anodyne performance of exceptional political correctness.

The Deeper Problem

Yet it was surely emblematic of a deeper cultural problem with Roman Catholicism: at a practical level, from an outsider’s perspective, Rome—particularly the hierarchy—does not seem to take her own teachings very seriously, or at least not seriously enough to jeopardize her status as a respectable player in the political games of the public square. Her witness is just too selective.

In practical terms, the beliefs of any religious organization are defined not simply by what is officially written down but by what it allows its officials to teach and what behavior it tolerates among its members. One can oppose abortion on paper. But if one allows, for example, pro-abortion priests to operate with impunity, or pro-choice politicians to take communion at Mass and to pose for photo opportunities with church dignitaries, one in practice sanctions abortion.

The same is true with contraception. I have no moral qualms about many forms of birth control. But I do not understand how a Church, which is so adamantly against such, can accept as a routine fact that this teaching is practically ignored by many, if not most, of its adherent in the USA.

My suspicion is that Rome lacks the courage to take its own teachings seriously. Had the pope berated Congress on abortion, he would no doubt have been decried as at best discourteous at worst a reactionary relic from an earlier, less enlightened time. Well, that is part of what being a Christian involves: the scorn of the world for promoting the whole counsel of God.

This suspicion rests upon another: That Rome is too enamored of being a significant player on the world stage to take the necessary stands and make the necessary sacrifices at this point.  I might add that these stands and sacrifices are no more than the practical implementation of her own teachings.  

As the recent visit of the Pope demonstrates, Rome still enjoys considerable and privileged access to politicians, the media, and the world at large. She needs to use that to be who she says she is, not what the world wants her to be.  And she needs to do that so unequivocally that there is no scope for any ambiguous reading of her message.

If Rome Caves

If Rome caves on the key issues of the day, or if Rome simply softens her message or engages in misdirection, we will all suffer because it is very clear that there is now a close link between the various moral issues of the day and the larger question of religious liberty. Rome, and only Rome, has the cultural influence, the money, and the aggregate of intellects, to engage the religious freedom battle in a significant manner.  Will she do so? Perhaps. But she will only do so with credibility if she demonstrates by her internal discipline that she takes her own religion seriously.

I attended the occasional fox hunt as a child (being from the wrong class, I was a spectator not a participant). Even my amateur spectating, though, taught me one thing: it is impossible to run with the fox and to hunt with the hounds. As society descends into a cacophony of competing identities, it is time for Rome to decide: Is she who she claims to be on paper? Or is she merely who she appears to be in practice?

Carl Trueman, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, holds the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Luther on the Christian Life and he is currently co-editing The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism.

Other articles in the series

David Mills’ What We Want from Protestants (Catholic)

Bruce Ashford’s Save the Drowning (Southern Baptist)

Christopher Jackson's More Good Bishops, and Better Eschatology (Lutheran)

Susannah Black’s Occupy the Public Space (Anglican)

Peter J. Leithart’s Become Protestant (Evangelical)

Jerry L. Walls’ Don’t Overreach (Methodist)

John Wilson’s Keep Doing What All Faithful Christians Have Done (Evangelical)

Bob Hartman’s Read the Bible More (Churches of Christ)